REH Word of the Week: ambergris









1. a waxy substance consisting mainly of cholesterol secreted by the intestinal tract of the sperm whale and often found floating in the sea; used in the manufacture of perfumes

[origin: Middle English, from Old French ambre gris, “gray amber”]


“Lady, hell!” bleated Harrigan. “Do you know what she just did? Threw away my chart! The only dash-blank chart in the world that could show me how to find the island of Aragoa!”

“Was we goin’ there, cap’n?” asked the bos’n.

“Yes, we was!” yelled Harrigan. “And what for? I’ll tell you! Ambergris. A barrel full! At thirty-two dollars an ounce! You bilge-rats been grousin’ to know where we were sailin’ to–all right, I’ll tell you! And then I’m goin’ to tie that wench up and skin her stern with a rope’s end!

“A few months ago a blackbirder bound for Australia went on a reef in a storm, off a desert island, and nobody but the mate got ashore alive. They’d found a mess of the stuff floatin’ on the water, and filled a big barrel with it–and it floated ashore with him. The mate stood the solitude of the island as long as he could, and then took to sea in the ship’s boat he’d patched up. He’d salvaged a chart and marked the island’s position. He’d been weeks at sea when I picked him up, on my last voyage from Honolulu to Brisbane. He was ravin’ and let slip about the ambergris–I mean he was that grateful to me for savin’ him he told me all about it, and gimme the chart for safekeepin’, and right after that he got delirious and fell overboard and drowned–“

[From “The Girl on the Hell Ship,” originally published as “She Devil” in Spicy Adventure April 1936. The complete story can be found in the forthcoming volume Spicy Adventures, which can now be pre-ordered from the REH Foundation.]